Review of Erika Meitner’s Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls

Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls. Erika Meitner. Anhinga Press, 2011, 83 pp. $17.00.

Meitner’s third book provides us with an extraordinary number of encounters – from the creepy school photographer to aliens to high school boys to bride and groom. Although this is her third volume, this manuscript was completed before the manuscript of her second published collection, and there are distinct resonances between this collection and both of her previous ones. The voices of this volume speak more like those of her first collection, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, in their sassiness and in the wide variety of the poem settings. But her reflections on place and relationship bear a striking resemblance to top- ics that Meitner came to more fully recognize in her second published collection, Ideal Cities.

This volume is a very chatty book; the voices of this collection are those of girls and women learning to navigate their worlds. To supple- ment their voices, Meitner also borrows from the language of a variety of sources which populate their worlds, such as the language of a US Customs Declaration Form in ‘Quisiera Declarar,’ or the language of prayers in ‘Blow’ and the language of news broadcasts in ‘Electric Girls’ and ‘Instructions for Vigilant Girls’.

The book’s three parts provide an arc of instructions that trace the time from the uncomfortable early edge of puberty to adulthood to an adult period that looks back on the journey. The first part of this book is perhaps the most tentative and halting, echoing the youth of its speakers. With each of the two subsequent sections, the reflections grow deeper, and the wisdom increases alongside the self-assurance of the speakers. In the first section, ‘makeshift instructions for vigilant girls,’ these speakers attempt to navigate puberty, high school, first crushes and sex, and relationships with one another. Meitner manages to capture the sense of uncertainty of her teenage speakers, caught in the sex-ex classroom through language pinpointing the anxiety, woes and hopes of these young speakers. But the voice that tells this also is sometimes a voice looking back on those days. Ruefully, the poet comments,

‘Someone needs to remind them, in the silence
of the beep – the longest hanging moment ever –
that we don’t need to ask forgiveness for exploring fingers,
roving lips and tangled limbs…
… The force that drives all flesh
exhausts, exalts, raises us up, ecstatic.’
––‘Sex Ed’

And with this, we see Meitner’s primary exploration, which is not merely a set of instructions but the makeshift nature of both what would suffice or what is needed. In short, the speakers themselves, in their par- ticular situations, are of importance, because of the way the reader can relate to each. She further creates community through the trope of the speaker speaking across the years to a former self, and among the voices that speak in the poems, creating a virtual community of women. In the second section, ‘the contact notes,’ we see the first fruits of earned wis- doms. The third part, ‘domestic spasm,’ arguably the most formally and thematically daring, in which the speakers see themselves close to or in the present, and reflect upon what the self needs now. In many ways, this collection is a collection of stories; yet the poems of this collection rely on a variety of narratives. Many root themselves in the little vignettes that have made up a life – or lives – that a girl or woman has gone through: the discomfort of the sex-ex classroom. First sex. Crushes. Booty calls. And some more fantastical, such as alien abduction.

This third collection of Meitner’s continues to offer reflections on a number of topics that she has begun elsewhere to discuss, while providing new voices and new reflections into her poetry. It is a wonderful addition to the two volumes she has already brought forth.

Alex Streiff is the fiction editor of The Journal.